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The wolf on the sofa

5 mins read

By Tracie Korol

Dogs straddle two worlds; they all carry a template of behaviors inherited from their wolf ancestors.  With varying degrees of success, they attempt to overlay this template on their lives amongst us humans. Sometimes, the template doesn’t line up with what lies beneath. It doesn’t line up with wolf society anymore, either. Dogs live in a confounding world of instinctive behavior pitted against their new learned behaviors as wheedlers, ingénues, bullies and innocents.

The most useful behavior that dogs carry over from wolf society is the wolf’s sense of social rank and the system of communication that supports pack structure. Rank is the consequence of adaptations the wolf made in order to live in a group.  Being part of a pack came with the benefits of increased resources (food). But it also put him in conflict with his own kind. The acceptance of social rank was the only way to avoid constant fighting over what food there was. Those who gave up to the bigger guys found it was a pretty good way to avoid getting killed or driven off by older, stronger more experienced pack members.

Over time the dog’s ability to grasp the concept of social hierarchy became the key to his compatibility with humans.  Dogs are, after all, social climbers.

They have a powerful instinct to be with and to be compliant and mild toward those they view as their social superiors. We humans have very useful opposable thumbs that come in handy when a dog wants something.   But, they are also always on the lookout for signs of weakness, hesitation or a loss of confidence. As erstwhile “pack leaders,” we are responsible for setting rules and maintaining order. We are entrusted with the safety, security and longevity of our “pack”.

However, being a strong and effective pack leader does not mean being harsh, overbearing or cruel. Nothing ruffles my fur more than to listen to some Neanderthal hoot that the reason his dog trembles and creeps around him is because he “did the alpha roll!” on her. The alpha roll is a technique used in old-style dog training to discipline a misbehaving dog. It consists of flipping the dog onto its back and pinning it in that position, sometimes by the throat.  It was first popularized by the Monks of New Skete in their 1976 book, “How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend”. (Best friend, really?) It’s useless and it’s cruel. In the true dog world, the pack leader does not spend all day, every day flipping and pinning all the dogs in their pack, snarling, fighting or being an otherwise pain in the ass. They clearly communicate their position as leader in the hierarchy by all the other signals they give.

Even though we are hampered by a questionable ability to communicate with another species, we must be our dog’s authoritarian guide much as parents are authoritarian guides for our children.

Although Juma is a member of the family or a working partner (or both), he is not an equal in responsibility or freedom and must be instructed in how to behave in an appropriate manner inside and outside the home. This training can take advantage of the characteristics that dogs have inherited from their wolf ancestors but with a nod to the influences of domestication.

The trick is to guide Juma even though we cannot communicate with him on his own level but are destined (or doomed) to educate him according to our human nature. Therefore, understanding dominance, submission, aggression, and the dog’s affinity for group living are important to the process even though thousands of years of canine husbandry have moderated their purpose.

Being pack leader means learning how to communicate alpha signals all dogs will understand. Don’t assume your puppy (or any other dog for that matter) speaks English. He speaks D-O-G. Communicating understandable alpha signals to your dog is the closest we ever come to speaking dog. As pack leaders we need to communicate with clarity, with consistency, compassion, understanding, and respect.

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